Maine Steamer Clams 101

Adrien Sala Clams in Steel Bowl

Whether you’re down east at a cottage or ‘uptah’ camp, Maine steamer clams are a traditional summertime favorite for family affairs and cookouts. Knowing how to clean steamers for such gatherings is essential, and takes but a few, simple steps. Compared to other kinds of seafood, steamers are relatively inexpensive and easy enough to prepare. In no time you, your family and friends can enjoy the sweet and salty flavor of one of Maine’s most tasty seafood dishes.

What is a Maine steamer clam?

The clams we know as steamers are abundant in Maine and harvested along the coast from Wells to Lubec. A Maine steamer is classified as a soft-shell clam. Steamers, also called longnecks, live and thrive in the clam flats—the mud, gravel and sand areas within the intertidal region of the coast—that band along the seashore covered at high tide and uncovered at low tide, which when you’ll find the clam diggers out mucking.

Clam flats are managed by towns in cooperation with the Maine Department of Marine Resources. Soft-shell clams are an important part of the economy for Maine coastal communities. To put in perspective, Maine produces approximately 60% of the country’s soft-shell clams, with landings worth over $18.2 million in 2019. As a marine resource, it is typically second in value, employing the second-highest number of fishermen, after lobster fishing.

When is Maine steamer clam season?

Maine is fortunate to have such a variety of shellfish in its waters, with the soft-shell clam being one of the more popular ones. Peak harvest for steamers runs May through October, which is why many associate the season with the time of year they are in abundance. However, there is no ‘season’—the harvest is year-round.

How to clean or purge Maine steamers?

As their name suggests, the shells of soft-shell clams have thin shells, are somewhat fragile, and should be handled with care. To clean, first, thoroughly rinse the mud and sandy grit from the shells with cold water. Once rinsed, have a large bowl or pot ready with enough cold, salted water to submerge the clams. Never use hot or warm water as it will kill the clams. Cover and let the clams sit for 30 minutes to an hour. Doing so allows the clams to spit the sand out—purge the sand inside their stomachs.

How long should you cook steamer clams?

When ready to cook, add an inch of cold water (or your favorite beer or a stout) into a tall, large pot. If you have a steamer rack, place it at the bottom of the pot, and carefully lay and stack the clams on the steamer rack. No steamer rack? Just put the clams in the pot with the water.

Cover up the pot and bring the water to a boil. Turn the heat down a little and let the clams steam away for about 10 minutes or until the steamer clamshells are wide open. Remove the pot from the heat and let the clams cool for a few minutes before handling. If any of the steamers did not open they should be discarded.

How many clams per pound?

As soft-shell clam size varies from 2 inches in length or greater, a good estimate is generally 12-15 clams per pound. If you order too many, you can always keep fresh, live clams refrigerated for 2-3 days after the arrival of shipment. What you don’t steam you can fry—that’s what your favorite seafood restaurants do.

How many clams per person?

This is a common enough question that’s as open-ended as the answer—for it’s as many as a person can eat. However, for planning purposes, if you have a good handle on the appetites of your guests, the recommendation for how many clams to serve is approximately 1/2 to 1 pound per person (appetizer) or 1 to 2 pounds per person as the main course.